Enough Notebooks

My regular writing time is from 7 to 9 a.m. I’m one of those insufferable people who’s wide awake and functional as soon as my eyes are fully open, and I don’t need coffee to do it. (I drink strong black tea with milk, no sugar, but only when I’m awake.) This morning I was a little late getting started because I’m reading an excellent book: Dorothy West’s The Wedding. I knocked off 20 minutes early because my longhand drafts and notes for Wolfie, the novel in progress, no longer fit in their notebook, and my other two notebooks are otherwise occupied.

Clearly a visit to the Staples website was in order.

Now the strict constructionists among you will not allow that the purchase of writing-related supplies constitutes “writing” for the purpose of “writing time,” and you may be right. However, being a writer, I can rationalize anything, and the pages spilling out of my notebook were messing up my head.

Dear readers, I ordered.

The Staples website is not as sensibly organized as it might be, so it took more than 20 minutes to find everything, even though I knew what I was looking for.

Some of the current pen collection

Some of the current pen collection

I do nearly all my first-drafting and most of my note-taking in longhand. On paper. Cut, Copy, and Paste don’t work on paper, but I still need to move things around, insert new pages between old ones, and (ideally) find some dimly remembered bit when it needs to be found. In my world folders do best in file cabinets, not lying around on desks and tables. I wanted notebooks. Three-ring binders might have worked, but I write with fountain pens and real ink-bottle ink and most punched or punchable paper can’t handle it.

Well, it can, but the ink often comes through to the other side, which means I can’t write on both sides of the paper. I am frugal, I am cheap. This wouldn’t do.

So a few years ago I spotted an ingenious notebook system in the Levenger catalogue. The Levenger catalogue is high-class porn for writer types, but it’s on the pricey side. Being frugal and cheap, I wasn’t willing to shell out for a system I didn’t know would work for me.

Open notebook with pocket divider

Open notebook with pocket divider. No, I could not live without Post-it notes.

Then I  encountered something very similar at Staples, the Home Depot of office supplies. The price was reasonable enough to take a chance on. I splurged. The system, which Staples calls “ARC,” quickly became indispensable.

At left you can see what the notebooks look like. The binding comprises 11 plastic rings. The rings don’t open; the paper is punched with 11 holes, each one open so it can fit over the ring. Pages can be moved, singly or in chunks, from one place to another.

A custom 11-hole punch is available, so you can punch holes in any paper you like, but the paper that comes with the system is, wonder of wonders, sturdy enough for my fountain pens to write on both sides. And sturdy enough to be moved here and there several times.

So this morning I ordered three more notebooks — one with a leather cover (like the brown one in the photo) and two with polyvinyl (like the rose one) — and more dividers, some with pockets, some without.

Blank paper,” I wrote last fall, “is faith in the future.” Enough notebooks, perhaps, is faith that what’s been written will be worth retrieving. Either way, I can’t wait for my order to get here.


Write On, and On, and On

Happy New Year to all, and may your writing flourish and lead you along interesting paths.

If you look up at the menu bar, you’ll see it’s been streamlined. The five Ws — Who, What, When, Where, and Why — and their first cousin How are now all on the same page.

The “You!” page is now “Got a Question?” It includes a comment form to make it easy for you to ask questions, share your experience, offer suggestions, whatever.

If you’re on Facebook, Write Through It has its own page. If you “like” it (and maybe even if you don’t), you can make comments and ask questions there too.

Write Through It now has 1,060 followers, and it’s not even a year old yet. I’m amazed. Welcome aboard, and special thanks to all who’ve commented, liked various posts, and otherwise supported this blog. You’re keeping it, and me, going.

P.S. I just added four new ink colors to my collection: sepia brown, suede blue, copper burst, and velvet black. No, I didn’t need any more ink, but ink, like pens and blank paper, is faith in the future. It’s going to be a good writing year. Here’s the current collection.

The four new bottles are on the left. You can tell they're new because they're so clean. I don't know why I up-ended Travvy's bone behind the tableau, but I like it.

The four new bottles are on the left. You can tell they’re new because they’re so clean. I don’t know why I up-ended Travvy’s bone behind the tableau, but I like it.

My New Pens

So earlier this month one of my most favorite fountain pens died. I think I killed it: twisted the piston fill too hard. It jammed. When I tried to unjam it, something broke.

pens & blotter All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, and I couldn’t fix my pen either.

Hope didn’t spring eternal, but it did froth and bubble for a while. I Googled “Pelikan pen repair” — the broken pen was a Pelikan 200 — and corresponded with an authorized Pelikan pen repair outfit.

My injured pen, it seemed, could not be easily or cheaply fixed.

I faced the music, or bit the bullet, and consigned my dear trusty amber Pelikan 200 demonstrator model to the wastebasket.


Now, as I’ve written several times before, I have more fountain pens than any girl — even one who does all her first-drafting in longhand — needs. This was still true. I had eight pens filled with various colors of ink and ready to go. I only have two hands, and of the two only one can write legibly. The goddess Durga might make use of eight pens simultaneously, but not me.

But late one night, when desire was strong and inhibition weak, I wandered toward eBay, whence most of my pens have come. A “Christmas model” Pelikan 200 was up for bids, the price was reasonable, and the auction closed within the hour. “Christmas model” did not mean garish. The cap was translucent red, the body translucent green, but you have to hold them up to the light to see the color clearly.

I have given myself away. The eBay screen did not tell me this. I learned it later.

To make a long story short, I bid, and bid again, and bid yet again. The closing price wasn’t quite as reasonable as it had been when I logged on, but it was still pretty good. The pen was mine. (It’s the top one in the photo. See what I mean? It’s not garish at all. It’s currently filled with green ink.)

Well, there’s something about eBay that’s just a little bit compelling. Once upon a time a friend gave me a scratch ticket as a birthday present. I got totally hooked. I lost less than ten bucks before I realized I was in over my head and got out of the pool. I checked out other Pelikan 200 auctions that were closing in the next day or so. I put a couple of them on my watch list.

An email reminded me the next day that one of the auctions had only an hour to go. A-OK. I was working away on my laptop. I opened my browser, went to eBay, and found the auction.

Another long story short: I snagged it, at an even better price. It’s the bottom one in the photo. It’s filled with the plum-colored ink that you can see on the blotter. I’d never used this particular plum-colored ink before. It seems to have been waiting for this particular pen.

Now, of course, I’m haunting the Fahrney’s website for new ink colors.

And so it goes.

Frugal is good. I’m frugal to a fault. But self-denial gets old if you’ve living on a shoestring, and it has its way of bursting into extravagance when least expected. Deny yourself ice cream and pretty soon you’ll be able to think of nothing else.

My theory is that the occasional self-indulgence makes living on a shoestring not only bearable but fun. Every once in a while it’s OK to act as if price is no object, even if it is.

Whatever Works

Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”? For many writers this is a far hotter topic than liberals versus conservatives, dogs versus cats, or Macs versus PCs. Plotters work it all out in advance. Pantsers — you’re way ahead of me here — fly by the seat of their pants.

The other day I learned about “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers dive in and write write write till they run out of steam. Bashers knock each sentence into shape before they move on to the next. Their first drafts are polished and almost ready to go.

Some how-to guides emphasize planning. If you fly by the seat of your pants, they warn, it’ll take a lot longer. You may never finish at all.

If you’re writing to a deadline, whether imposed from without — say there’s a contract involved — or within — say you’re participating in NaNoWriMo and trying to write a novel this month, time is of the essence and “longer” is a liability.

I’m not writing to a deadline, beyond producing a few new pages for each week’s meeting of my writers’ group, but there’s no question in my mind: planning has its uses. Last spring my novel-in-progress (working title: The Squatters’ Speakeasy) ran out of steam. It was all sprawl and no trail. I pushed it to one side and went to work on Wolfie, the current project. Eventually I diagnosed the Squatters problem as a “surfeit of subplots.” There wasn’t a main plot in sight.

Some planning is clearly called for.

At the same time — Wolfie started as one of those multitudinous subplots. It appeared when I was flying by the seat of my pants. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Planning has its uses. So does flying by the seat of your pants. So do swooping and bashing. Whatever works — and when it stops working, try something else.

steering coverAs usual, Ursula K. Le Guin got there long before me. Her Steering the Craft (Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) is my favorite how-to book. Sometimes I open to a page at random, as if I were casting the I Ching or laying out tarot cards. The other day I was flipping through looking for advice on plot. This is what I found:

“Somebody asked Willie Nelson where he got his songs, and he said, ‘The air’s full of melodies, you just reach
out. . . .’ The world’s full of stories, you just reach out.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories. . . . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling.”

About her “steering the craft” image, which organizes the book (and which I love), she adds: “The story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

In Wolfie the other day, my main character, Shannon, was sailing along on course. She knew where she was heading. Then two things happen, boom, boom, one right after the other. The first shakes her certainty; the second tells her she’s heading in the wrong direction. She’s got to do something, but she doesn’t know what.

I generally depend on my characters to tell me what’s what. I was no help — but I’m at the helm and lingering in irons in the middle of the bay is not an option.

So I picked out a pen that hadn’t seen much use lately and filled it with red ink. (For days I’d been cruising in more somber colors — gray, brown, black cherry. Red woke me up.) With a sheaf of my new blank paper in my lap, I slipped into Shannon’s head and we wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Now she knows what she’s going to do, and I’ve got a pretty good idea. We’re back on course.

Red ink collage

Red ink collage

Blank Paper

I do most of my first-drafting in longhand. In pen and ink. It works for me. I’ve even blogged about it.

My fleet of fountain pens

My fleet of fountain pens

It does present certain challenges, however. The near-illegibility of my handwriting I’ve managed to turn into an asset: what the internal editor can’t read, she can’t second-guess and mess with.

Most commercially available paper, I discovered, can’t stand up to fountain pen-and-ink. Yellow pads, notebook paper, the bond paper I feed to my laser printer and my inkjet: they’re all so thin that what I wrote on one side made an impression on the other.

This might not be a deal-breaker for some people, but I’m cheap. I want to write on both sides.

I was also looking for a way to organize my handwritten pages. Browsing at a office-supply chain store, I found these cool notebooks. They were looseleaf, sort of, but instead of two or three big metal rings, they had eleven little plastic ones. You could add pages, remove pages, or move pages around.

I bought one notebook and the filler paper to go with it. Wonder of wonders, I could write in fountain pen on both sides of the paper, and the words all stayed on their own side.

I was hooked. Now I’ve got three notebooks: a blue one for Wolfie, the novel in progress; a red one for Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel on the back burner; and a brown one for everything else.

Wolfie has been eating up paper like nobody’s business. I scavenged paper from the red and the brown notebooks to put in the blue one. Then there was no more to scavenge. I was almost out of paper.

paperI hesitated. Blank paper is a challenge. Am I going to keep writing? Yeah, I thought. I am.

How much paper should I order? This was harder. Like I said, I’m cheap. I hate to spend money on stuff I don’t use. Sooner or later any blank paper left untouched on the shelf would be making faces at me and going “Nyah nyah, nyah nyah.”

I ordered five packets, 50 sheets to a packet — 500 sides of fountain-pen-friendly paper. And some section dividers to go with them.

Blank paper is faith in the future.

Ready to write

Notebooks with section dividers and sticky notes


By the time I got to college, my once-impeccable handwriting was barely readable. Typewriters were a blessing, even before I learned to touch-type. Computers were even better. I got my first PC in 1985. I fell in love with WordPerfect. I did all my writing on the computer. Then I’d print it out, edit in pen or pencil, type in my edits, and print it out again.

I wrote my novel, The Mud of the Place, on the computer. Mud was a five-year journey punctuated with stalls, stops, and detours — every kind of block you can imagine. I’d stare at those crisp words on the screen and have no idea what came next. Pretty soon the stall would turn into a downward spiral and I’d know for absolute sure that I was never going to finish the stupid thing.

Around that time I was one of several women writers who gathered from time to time to share writing and talk about writing. Each meeting we’d do at least one freewriting exercise. We took turns picking a word or phrase to start with and setting a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. When the timer went off, you didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but we almost always did.

I was continually astonished by what I could write in 10 or 15 minutes with only a ballpoint pen and a few sheets of lined paper.

Finally I put it together. When I stalled at the computer, I’d stuff a yellow pad and a couple of ballpoints into my backpack and go somewhere else. In good weather this might be just outside. Other times it might be the Get a Life Café in Vineyard Haven. The key was away from the computer.

My key phrase was usually something like “I can’t write this fucking scene because …” And before I ran out of steam, I would have written, or at least sketched, the fucking scene whose elusiveness had been frustrating me so.

Gradually I figured out that scenes often stalled because I didn’t know a character well enough or, especially, because I couldn’t visualize where the scene was taking place. So before I got to the hair-tearing stage, I’d take pen and yellow pad and let the character talk. Characters, I discovered, were often good at describing places that I couldn’t see.

After finishing The Mud of the Place, I went into a tailspin. What pulled me out was Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook. I bought myself a fountain pen and a bottle of green ink to write my “Morning Pages,” the daily freewriting that is the foundation of Cameron’s method. Writing in longhand, I began to see, could be more than a method of diagnosing and solving problems.

For years now I’ve been doing nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, for both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got more fountain pens and more bottles of ink than anyone needs, but currently six pens, each filled with a different color ink, are in active use.

Why does it work? For me writing in longhand makes it much, much easier to bypass the internal editor and just write. My handwriting is messy enough to flummox the internal editor but legible enough that I can transcribe it into the computer, which is where I do all my editing, revising, and rewriting. And — not to stray too far into woo-woo territory or anything — words seem to flow more easily through my fingers to a piece of paper than they do through my fingers to a keyboard.

The moral of the story isn’t that pen-and-ink rules. It’s that tools matter. If one isn’t doing the trick, try another one. I haven’t tried a tape recorder yet, but I do read aloud a lot both when I’m writing and when I’m editing, so that may be next.

Whatever works.

This morning's pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with

This morning’s pages, and the pen and ink I wrote them with. The dark orange scrawl at the bottom is a reminder of where I’m supposed to start tomorrow.